Where Contrition and Closure Go Hand-In-Hand – The Jose Vilson

Jeanne A. Curley

“Vilson, you should read the names of the graduates. You know them anyways.”

We’re at a retirement party that my wife and I organized for Ms. Nuevo (now that she’s retired, I can name her) when another colleague (we’ll call Mrs. A) mentioned that my sixth graders were now eighth graders. It’s been two years since I left the school I called a second home for 15 years. I didn’t want to leave while COVID-19 upended our societal norms and a racial uprising momentarily grasped America’s imagination, but the system made it difficult to meet in a reasonable middle. I would have been just as happy teaching part-time while doing my doctoral study, but the time had come – for example – to consider what life is like without a teacher improvement plan hanging over my head due to administrative carelessness.

So when Mrs. A asked me to read their names at graduation, I almost teared up. My last principal, who I still tell people was the best principal I worked for, concurred with a casual nod.

Fast forward to last week and I just came back from a back-to-back trip to Birmingham, AL and Exeter, NH while the country was either celebrating or honoring (hopefully) Juneteenth (more soon). While both talks took different turns, a common point I brought up was the idea that our classrooms are political, separate from “partisan.” Everything from how we get to teaching and the students in front of us to the curriculum and standards we proffer is political. The pandemic taught us that, even when the buildings get shut down, we still have school because we still have these relationships and all the powers that come with them. Thus, we would do better to acknowledge how politics are part of our way of being rather than treating them separately from our personal selves.

But I couldn’t have formed those opinions and theories without the thousand-plus students in my care, and the families and communities that trusted me with them for all those class periods in the middle of triumphs and tragedies.

I get my usual suit and tie on. When I hop out of the Uber, I heard “VILSON!” These sixth graders who barely passed my shoulders were now much taller and with deeper voices. It felt good standing outside where I was wont to help organize the lines outside into the auditorium. It felt good seeing my colleagues as well, many of whom are the reason I get to dissuade public notions of teacher professionalism.

The auditorium wasn’t as full as it once was. The greeter at the auditorium door didn’t know who I was. I smiled knowingly. The drums banged to introduce the graduates. One of my sixth graders who was consistently in trouble (in other classes) for one incident or another was now leading the auditorium in singing the National Anthem. The salutatorian is a student who got accepted into Exeter, the school I just visited for my second speech a few days prior. The band teacher got the students to play White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army,” but with the girl who led us in with the Anthem doing her rendition of Jack White’s vocals. The guest speaker was an alumni of our school who eventually graduated from Syracuse University – my alma mater – and is continuing his education, too.

By the time it was my turn to read names, it felt like an out-of-body experience. I had words prepared but I just kept it to my job.

As I read their names, I recalled their faces in class. The young brilliant children who were my last set of students were now one step closer to fulfilling their destinies. After the ceremonies, we all met in the backyard. I recognized so many faces: parents who I had known for a decade, students whose brothers and sisters I also taught, elders of the community who served on the parent association. In some instances, I had taught three to five children within a family. Legacy.

A few students mentioned how sad they were that they didn’t have me in seventh grade and I shared their sentiment. Those of us with even a little empathy will recognize how the pandemic was the type of disruption we would never want for our children. While many of us fought for better ways and means post-shutdowns, we seem to be regressing as a society now. But I also learned some things. When I left, the principal in her second year brought back homeroom, a fight I had for about a decade with administrators. The children and adults had a consensus leader who they felt cared about their well-being and felt they could work for, not work despite.

In many ways, the school got smaller, but the hearts got bigger.

Afterward, I ordered white rice and red beans with grilled chicken from one of my favorite local spots. I’m sitting there looking out the glass windows and doors as Inwood/Washington Heights walk on by. I’m remorseful because I didn’t get to spend a full year with them face-to-face. I didn’t get to move up with them as their seventh-grade teacher as I’d done for so many years prior with other classes. I didn’t get to go on trips or finish those lessons on slopes or algebraic equations.

But reading their names gave me the confirmation that I had a role in their overall education. A few hours later, I’d have a class on public policy and education where my special guest was a New York Times national correspondent. I brought her on because her book focused on how America wrestles with the parameters of the teaching profession, a required text for my course at that. Maybe all of us should have to read the names of the people we purportedly serve to orient ourselves better at the work we do.

Because what is policy if not relationships codified?

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